Open Transit Design: Why Stations Designed for Non-Transit Users Are Most Successful

How many people go to Grand Central Terminal just for the experience? Peter David Cavaluzzi, FAIA describes a new approach to transit station design that, in its desired appeal to non-transit users, is indebted to the great stations of the past.

On any given day, Grand Central Terminal in midtown Manhattan, which opened almost 100 years ago, enjoys far more visitors drawn to its shopping, dining, and cultural events, than actual transit users. There are more than 750,000 people that pass below its vaulted astronomical ceiling every day. When the building was first designed, however, New York did not realize it was laying the foundation for the development of today's most modern transit stations and public places. But as we return to the lessons learned at this project, in an era of revived interest in downtown living and car-less transit, we see how progressive yet timeless that approach really was. The American Public Transportation Association reports that Americans took 10.4 billion rides on public transit in 2011, which is an increase of 1 billion since 2000. It is time, again, to design with optimism for transit stations that will be grand 150-200 years from now.

In addition to laying rail and passenger platforms, the architects and engineers of Grand Central emphasized real-estate development in designing one of New York City's most iconic spaces. The developers coined the phrase "taking wealth from the air" as the way to describe how they planned to make Grand Central much more than a place to board a train. They set out to design transit infrastructure so that it doesn't look and feel like transit at all. The goal was to use transit as a way to design iconic spaces such as the great hall, the retail passages, and Park Avenue that embody the culture of the city and create enormous real-estate value at the same time.  

This is what the City of Minneapolis and surrounding Hennepin County was looking for when it came time to design what they are now calling The Interchange, a major transit hub at the edge of their downtown central business district. This new nexus, designed by EE&K a Perkins Eastman company, is based on design principles called "Open Transit" that we've been developing in our projects over the last 15 years. By testing these design principles in such car-centric, highway-organized cities as Los Angles, Kansas City, and Houston, we've been able to challenge what we know about transit design in the toughest environments.

The Interchange, Courtesy EE&K a Perkins Eastman company/Knuston Construction

What we're calling "Open Transit Design" is a new way to explain the concepts underlying some fairly long-established principles in station design that are re-emerging in an era of unprecedented interest in city living. Just as the name suggests Open Transit is an inclusive design point of view that incorporates a wider array of spaces and modes to create an iconic place. Great cities across the world are defined by great places. If we are to make cities more sustainable we need to create transit places that will also sustain and enhance urban life. For the first time in more than two decades, growth in town and city centers is outpacing suburban growth according to the U.S. Census (figures reported in July 2011). Cities are re-marketing themselves around different amenities as the suburbs lose popularity. Transit is an essential component to defining the difference between world-class cities with vibrant 24-hour occupancy and the type of commuter city that empties out when work is over.

Our experiences in designing transit stations for cities hoping to fundamentally shift their transit attitudes helped shape the principles of Open Transit Design. At L.A.'s Gateway Center, for instance, America's largest intermodal transportation facility links buses, long distance and commuter rail, light rail and the city's subway system with a 3,000-car park-and-ride facility. Since Gateway Center's completion in 2000, ridership on all modes of transit has increased from 7,000 people a month to 80,000. By providing a first-class environment for those taking advantage of the city's expanded transit system, we believe the design of the station helped play a role in getting car-centric Angelenos to embrace transit, and buck the notion that public transit was not for everyone.

So what comprises Open Transit Design? There are five essential elements needed for this type of project:

  1. Integration of all available transit modes
  2. An orientation towards real estate development
  3. Architecture that makes iconic spaces
  4. Integration of culture with transit design
  5. Appeal for non-transit users

Open Transit Design is that which integrates all modes of transit including: rail, bus, cars, bikes, and walking. Bicycles are a newer part of the equation being pushed in both bigger cities (New York has massively altered traffic patterns in such complicated places as Times Square to include bike lanes) and smaller ones where people have simply grown tired of gas prices and want a more active lifestyle. A few years ago, bikes were still considered primarily for recreation, but they are becoming an increasing part of the daily commute in cities across America.  As such, The Interchange will have a "Bike Bar" cafe that will provide bike repair, rental, and other services.

Cascade Section, Courtesy EE&K a Perkins Eastman company/Knuston Construction

Taking a lesson from Grand Central, Open Transit doesn't just respond to trends, it creates them. Transit centers designed according to these principles are development-oriented, meaning they catalyze investment in a region as much as they follow it. One of the problems The Interchange solves is the massive influx of people attracted to the area by the opening of Target Field as the home of the Minnesota Twins baseball team. But the opportunities it creates are even greater. The transit hub is integrated with a Great Lawn, an amphitheater, and commuter-oriented retail. Much like LA's iconic Hollywood & Highland center, completed in 2002, the Interchange connects a series of public spaces as a destination. In the Hollywood Hills adjacent location, along a boulevard of historic theaters, we explored how to integrate existing amenities into one new place that capitalized on a new transit line.

Key Places, Courtesy EE&K a Perkins Eastman company/Knuston Construction


Overall Site, Courtesy EE&K a Perkins Eastman company/Knuston Construction

Looking north on Park Avenue in Manhattan, one cannot help but experience the Beaux Arts wonders of the design at Grand Central. The architecture of the iconic space makes public transit feel high-class. In the open-air version we are creating for Minneapolis, visitors will experience the same hustle and bustle, but broken up into a series of high quality spaces. In both cases, iconic spaces will draw the tourist as much as the commuter. Use by non-transit riders is what adds that extra level of vibrancy to the open transit principles of design.

Activated Public Spaces, Courtesy EE&K a Perkins Eastman company/Knuston Construction

Culture has to integrate with transit, and that means locating stations in the heart of public space. It worked well in the middle of downtown Houston, with our design of Houston Main Street Square. An area that was once a ghost town after 5:00 PM now has a sense of arrival and event that has spurred development for blocks. The Interchange will take that one step further in the design of the Cascade Amphitheater, which celebrates entertainment and light rail simultaneously. Concertgoers will sit on a great lawn looking up at the stage as elevated trains pull in and take off over the stage, effectively becoming part of the performance.

Houston Main Street Square, Copyright Jud Haggard

The Interchange in Minneapolis pushes the lessons of open transit even further with a holistic approach to the building as a community member. It aims to help sustain Minneapolis's urban revival by incorporating environmentally responsible features like rainwater collection (for irrigation and building use) and a symbiotic use of water with recycling trash. The LEED certified development will use heat from the nearby Hennepin Energy Recovery Center to heat sidewalks, in order to melt snow in the winter. Like Grand Central, The Interchange plans to be around for centuries.

Combining a state-of-the-art transit station with complementary mixed-used development and year-round public space, The Interchange will create a new emblem of civic identity and community pride in its mix of uses. Ultimately it will create the first of a new generation of facilities to truly integrate transit and culture. Like Grand Central, it will draw tourists, workers, shoppers, diners, and casual observers. As an oasis in a part of the city where large-scale freeway infrastructure collides with the historic grand warehouses of the North Loop neighborhood, it fundamentally changes Minneapolis.  And as the home of one of the most advanced transit centers and modern community destinations in the country, Minneapolis is building on lessons learned in changing the transit cultures of Los Angeles and Houston, while adding features that make use of Minneapolitans' own amenities, culture, and growing desire for more activated outdoor urban space.

Placemaking, Courtesy EE&K a Perkins Eastman company/Knuston Construction

When the project broke ground last month adjacent to Target Field in the North Loop neighborhood, it signaled that downtown was about to join a new era of urban revival. The design highlight is a "Campanile," or a vertical element that will project light shows and video displays. In connection with that, the "Train Shed Canopy" above the entire length of the lofted train platform will glow and light up as trains arrive and depart the station, giving outsiders a sense of the activity within. While light shows and canopies many not be the new Beaux Arts, they are parallel to Grand Central in surprising ways. The mix of services, shopping, and tourism with the right location within the community is the lasting lesson of Grand Central which can fit many different styles. "Open Transit Design" is the future of vibrant American cities, taking the best of the past re-envisioned and evolved for the future.

The Interchange project was planned by the Hennepin County Interchange Project Office. The prime contractor is Knutson construction. The design is by EE&K a Perkins Eastman company. When completed the Interchange will be have over 500 trains per day including light rail and commuter rail along with buses, bikes, and cars. The project also includes mixed-use development fully integrated with a beautiful new ‘Station Square" that anchors the plan.

Peter David Cavaluzzi, FAIA is a Principal at EE&K a Perkins Eastman company and is based in the firm's New York office. Peter's unique approach to architecture considers the buildings and public spaces together as a complete design. A Ralph Rapson Fellow, Cavaluzzi has great enthusiasm for the future of Minneapolis, a testament to The Interchange design-build team's level of commitment to creating an urban place of world-class quality.



Except they forgot about transit

86% of Metro Transit's riders are taking a bus, not a train. The Interchange makes no provision for bus riders. So no matter how much archibabble you write about it, it is a failure as a transit station. But yeah, maybe you've built a nice enough park that people will want to hang out there even though it's right next to a garbage burner.

Then don't use it. You and

Then don't use it. You and the other terd, stop overusing "archibabble".

The Interchange will work just fine, your comments will look stupid in a decade.

Southwest Corridor is inevitable, the forthcomingCentral Corridor will run to this hub and Hiawatha gets plenty of use, especially on game days. There are plenty of vacant lots nearby, ripe for development. The Warehouse District and North Loop could use more public transport night life seekers - their dependency on cars is astounding, esp when they are intoxicated.

Also, the trash burner is not the distraction you and too many others have whined about.

You are simply on here flaming away.

It Doesn't Look Much Like Grand Central Station

Or like the urban spaces around it.

I bet that when Reed & Stem, Warren & Wetmore designed Grand Central Station, they never used the word "iconic."

They wanted to design a beautiful building, not an icon.

Charles Siegel

words should mean something.

"If we are to make cities more sustainable we need to create transit places that will also sustain and enhance urban life."
This sentence is inane and meaningless. I can't believe I wasted my time reading it.

If you want to make cities sustainable, put housing and jobs next to high-capacity transit, and put parks somewhere else. Also, stop providing space for machines that use non-sustainable resouces.

"archibabble" --- ha ha. love it!

"Sustainable" cities and their words.

If you want to make cities sustainable, put housing and jobs next to high-capacity transit, and put parks somewhere else.

Actually, it is far more likely that cities will be sustainable if their QOL is high. High QOL means nearby parks for restoration, nearby nature, recreation, view from the window, proximate principle for property values; "sustainable" would mean many parks nearby for ameliorating the urban heat island, air pollution filtration, habitat, etc.

IOW: not having parks nearby would be inane.

This is not to say I agree with everything in the piece, jus' sayin' what "sustainable" is.



High QOL

A high QOL would respect the fact that when I am late for a meeting and trying to catch a train or connect to a bus, I should have an efficient path to travel that doesn't waste my time. Seconds matter to people. Competitiveness is what will determine the choice equation between energy efficient modes or other modes. Every second at every stage of a journey is important. Architects often think of a public space as if we all have all day long to contemplate it. My thoughts are fairly vulgar when your pretty space is slowing me down and making my tasks take longer than they should. Parks are great, I love parks, I want more of them, they should be part of the neighborhood, absolutely, sometimes it may make sense to have a small park near the station, if it's a high-functioning place, but every acre used for open space in the immediate limited walkshed (.25 miles) is that much land not used for housing and jobs that NEED to be connected to the system. Our population is aging and many elderly people can't even walk 1 or 2 blocks. Providing paratransit is incredibly expensive. Putting senior housing at the station would give them better QOL than forcing them to navigate through a park just to catch a train. They may enjoy the park too, sure, Put it on the other side of the housing, away from the station and away from the high value land that should be the most densely developed spot in the city. Substantially increasing the density around the stations gives you maximum potential use and cost recovery. Paying low taxes is integral to QOL as well. A system that requires less subsidy is more stable and dependable. Architects are overly focused on the visual realm. But if form doesn't follow function, it tends to really screw it up. I'm not even totally against this particular park, but the article was written with slippery language that just threw out a bunch of key words without giving them meaning in the context of the actual use of the transit station. I found it unworthy of my time. What "sustainable" is, is a buzzword that has largely outlived any serious meaning. It tries to encompass way too many different purposes and value systems into one very inadequate term. "resilience" is starting to take its' place but even that falls short and is now becoming overused in inappropriate ways. We need to speak more clearly. The reasons you give why parks are good are very good reasons why parks are good, but they have nothing to do with the ability to sustain transit operations or infrastructure as an alternative method of urban mobility.

QOL is a broad view. efficient path...Competitiveness...but every acre used for open space in the immediate limited walkshed (.25 miles) is that much land not used for housing and jobs ... Paying low taxes... The reasons you give why parks are good are very good reasons why parks are good, but they have nothing to do with the ability to sustain transit operations or infrastructure as an alternative method of urban mobility.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Hamlet Act 1, scene 5



Not a very bright

Not a very bright counterpoint. Parks only enhance sustainability along with what you suggest - housing and commercial space - ultimately marking your criticisms as obvious but also missing the point.

Much of older Minneapolis succeeds precisely because of residential-commercial-park space proximity.

I live in a treasured area of Minneapolis, in my neighborhood, no one is less than 4 blocks from a park at anytime, 6 blocks, at most from transportation, and ancillary businesses are always nearby. I could not imagine this convenience & quality of life without the parks, or the housing and businesses for that matter.

Thus it's quite simple, all three are necessary and interconnected.

As for some of your economic reductionism in the below post, I think U.S. planning has done enough development through the profit margin lens.

Open Transit design

After spending a month this summer riding the Shanghai Metro and making numerous passes through the Peoples Square, Xujiahui and Xinzhuang Metro stations, my response to "open transit design" is "Oh yeah, been there, done that..." No trend creation in my mind, just old wine in a new bottle. The key difference between Minneapolis and just about any other American city is that both Shanghai and NYC have the concentration of population that make the concept economically possible. It's this concentration of population and resulting very high rates of transit use that make Grand Central Station in NYC and the Shanghai Metro stations highly successful as more than just subway stops.

I'm sure the Minneapolis station will be very dynamic and crowded on game nights, but the rest of the time I suspect it will be dead space.

George R. Frantz, AICP
Principal, George R. Frantz & Associates
Ithaca, New York

What's your real point?

It appears you aren't from Minneapolis-Saint Paul & you are basing your central argument on the merits of two super-sized global cities - no kidding. You lay down criticisms, yet offer no alternatives - a bit simplistic and counteractive on your part.

It is inevitable that MSP will have another transit line, the Southwest Corridor, linked to the Interchange. This project is about 10 years out, perhaps sooner if the politicians actually embraced the private sector's wishes to do it yesterday. This corridor will connect west suburbia (easily the wealthiest in MSP) to downtown. Moreover, the North Loop neighborhood, near the Interchange, has unquestionably grown over the past decade. Prior to North Loop's growth, the area was mostly vacant land and underused warehouses. Furthermore, numerous vacant blocks between North Loop and downtown are begging for development - these very blocks are quite near this project.

Development can move slow Minneapolis, but the area around this project exceeds just Twin's games. The Central Corridor is coming, which will connect downtown Minneapolis with downtown Saint Paul, thus thousands and some Minneapolitans, as well as western surbanites who work in Saint Paul will utilize this hub as a starting point for daily commutes. The Target Center is also nearby, home to 41 NBA games, don't know how many WNBA games, high school tournaments, and numerous concerts. Also, quite near this project is a very active night life scene (North Loop & the Warehouse District) to the point where I simply avoid it because my aging behind wants nothing to do with the young-fast crowd. Finally, as a regular biker in Minneapolis, the Cedar Lake Trail, which runs right through this project, has genuinely picked up traffic since completion, about a year after Target Field was up and running. There will be plenty of bike traffic at this transit hub from May - October, esp if cold drinks and park space are available.

The Interchange will work just fine & exceed expectations, especially once the Southwest Corridor is operational. I can't imagine further stalled development on the commercial end once this Interchange is complete, recession or not. Additionally, only a handful of new retail projects would be necessary. The bars and entertainment-sports' venues are enough.

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